In a rare interview, the influential interior designer Christian Liaigre – whose signature look is the most copied in the business – talks to Luxuryculture about his iconic work.
“Personal spaces must be protective,” says the interior designer Christian Liaigre. “As soon as you go through the door, the decoration must reassure you with a feeling of calm and protection.” While this might sound like a logical statement from a decorator, in a world where designers seem to prefer the extremes of ultra minimalism or avant-garde whimsicality, it is almost revolutionary. And it is this approach to design – where wellbeing is promoted through a “balance between sophistication and relaxation” – that makes Liaigre the influential creative force he is today (‘Possibly the most important – certainly the most copied – designer of our time’, once declared The Financial Times).
Born in the west of France, Liaigre studied at the Paris Academy of Fine and Decorative Arts and taught drawing at the Academy Charpentier before dedicating himself to horse breeding for 10 years. It was not until 1987 that he founded his design practice in Paris. Now 65, he heads a team that works on projects from hotels (see The Mercer in New York) and restaurants (La Societe, Paris) to boats and private offices, as well as the signature Liaigre private residences for which he is most well known.
“Luxe, calme et moderne” is how Herbert Ympa, the founder of Hip Hotels, described Liaigre’s home interiors in the introduction to the first of the designer’s monographs. But while Liaigre is without a doubt a champion of the understated, his residences – whether it is for clients Rupert Murdoch or Karl Lagerfeld – are rich in detail. Natural materials abound, as do quality fabrics. His palette might be resolutely neutral, but there is almost always a shock of colour in the form of Mao reds or mustard yellows. More than this, there is what Liaigre terms as an “intellectual ambience” about his work that can be seen in his artful placement of paintings, sculpture, photography and antiques, as well as in his choice of furniture.
Indeed, Liaigre’s interiors are often anchored by furniture of his own creation. In private commissions he believes that custom-designed furniture is paramount. When bespoke pieces are not necessary, Liaigre selects from his own line of furnishings, which represent a large part of his business. Crafted from an array of exotic materials – favourites include wenge, wacapou and ebony woods from Africa – Liaigre’s pieces are delicately shaped and upholstered for relaxation. He claims not to have found a sofa more comfortable than the Augustin model he designed in 2000.
Collaborations with artists are found throughout the Liaigire furniture collection, such as the marble-topped side table he made with Sophie Lafont (“a future Louise Bourgeois”). Even when there is no other artist involved in the creation of an object, there is often a reference, such as in his spindly bronze lamps that recall Giacometti or the wooden Nagato stool/table that he himself says was “inspired by Brancusi”. (Liagire notes that both Brancusi and Giacometti were still working at the time he was studying in Paris).
Perhaps the defining element of Liagire’s interiors is their sense of place. In the Caribbean, Liaigre uses bleached and worn wood; in New York, he fashioned a bathroom under a water tank at Rupert Murdoch’s apartment; and in Galicia, Spain, he crated a home with sliding screens made out of the same weave that local fishermen use to make their nets. With personal homes in Paris, the French island of Ile de Re and St Barths in the Caribbean, and design studios in both Paris and London, Liagire is acutely aware of local aesthetics. “Together with Capucine [Deravin Rummel] and her design team at the Fulham Road showroom, we successfully develop English interiors by combining my aesthetic principles with the English interior architecture and environment,” he says of his London outposts’ projects in the UK. “We have to try to develop the interiors while at the same time respecting the softness and beauty of the English light.”
Like his work, the Liagire philosophy sounds so simple. But there is formidable sophistication behind Christian Liagire that those who can afford it are able to buy into and that the rest of us can only aspire to achieve.
What is your definition of luxury?
Intelligence: an intelligent dream.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
A freshly laid egg.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
Hermès or Versailles.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
Every morning I spend with my 3 year-old son, as I am an old man.
In the book of your work written by Herbert Ypma, he describes your signature aesthetic as, "Luxe, calme and moderne". What do these words mean to you?
The world is over populated. You can feel it everywhere you go. Personal spaces must be protective. As soon as you go through the door, the decoration must reassure you with a feeling of calm and protection.
Although you studied at the Paris Academy of Fine and Decorative Arts, you weren’t always a designer and spent 10 years working in horse breeding. How did you come to start your own studio?
After my return back home, I needed to get back to art, decoration and materials, so I started designing furniture for a great French company called Jansen which no longer exists today. In 1985 I opened my studio with my own furniture designs.
You are known in particular for creating spectacular vacation homes in tropical locations. Why is this something of a specialty of yours?
I was born by the sea. Sea adventures meant the Caribbean, the smell of rum, heat and blue skies. I still remember these dreams and try to put something of them into the homes of my clients who are under the spell of these tropical destinations.
Your range of furniture is as successful as your interior design projects. Which do you consider your most iconic designs?
In 1986 I designed a small stool/extra table in solid wood, called the Nagato, which was inspired by Brancusi. This piece is still very popular and also much copied!
At one point in your career, your signature use of dark woods and neutral colours became an interiors phenomenon. How has your aesthetic developed since then?
The dark wood became a trend which I triggered after a trip to Asia. I was tired of the light Nordic style wood, popular at that time. My work is much diversified now. My assistants and I are very excited by all different kinds of materials available and what they have to offer. It is up to us to find the right aesthetic balance.
What do you collect in terms of art, design and antiques?
My collections are getting quite extensive as I love XVII century painting as much as modern pieces, together with objects that evoke scenarios with which I can start the story of a house. For example: an old coconut with red and brown specks can be the starting point to the colour of the doors and if there is a collection of Chinese pots in clay, they can be specially presented on illuminated shelves with some of the walls in the same colour. This will have an influence on the rest of the house.
To what extent do you collaborate with artists? What have been the most interesting things you have commissioned?
Mr Costes recently let me have “carte blanche” to do a restaurant for him at St Germain des Près – La Société. I wanted to create an artistic environment that told a story next to the Beaux Arts. I got a group of old artist friends together with a group of young artists, who were in their last year at art school. The place has become very fashionable but the intellectual ambiance created by these artists is still present.
As well as your design studio in Paris, you have a design service based in London run by Capucine Deravin Rummel. What sort of interiors do you prefer for London townhouses and English country houses?
We have to try to develop the interiors while at the same time respecting the softness and beauty of the English light. It is a true pleasure combining silk with linen, as the houses have an aristocratic air about them. Together with Capucine and her design team at the Fulham Road showroom, we successfully develop English interiors by combining my aesthetic principles with the English interior architecture and environment. I have a great respect of places and people. The resulting interiors are therefore always respectful of the local lifestyle, values, traditions and materials, without being clichéd.
You recently moved house in Paris. What kind of space did you create for your family?
We have just acquired an old property, which dates back to the 17th Century. We are going to try and create a harmony of comfort with the legacy of our furniture and the respect we owe to Versailles woodwork and parquet. We will see!
Where else do you own homes and how are they decorated?
We have homes on either side of the Atlantic: one in Ile de Ré (French coast near La Rochelle) and the other in St Bart’s in the French Caribbean. These two houses are similar since in that they are predominantly white with oiled woods.
Unlike many interior designers of your status, you have stayed away from shop interiors. Was this a conscious decision?
Commercial spaces quickly get spoilt but even spoilt, they still carry your signature and that takes away from your image as a designer. The pleasure of working for a couple or a family is immensely satisfying because if you can choose a decorator, the decorator can also choose his clients.
What are your current and upcoming projects?
I am working on projects in the US, Caribbean, Australia, India (a modern maharaja palace), Greece and Japan.